Unmanned Airborne Detection by the People’s Liberation Army: Indelible Cases of China’s Spying on the Philippine Navy
Editor’s Note: Beth Sanner is a former deputy director of National Intelligence for Mission Integration, a position where she oversaw the elements that coordinate and lead collection, analysis, and program oversight throughout the Intelligence Community. In this role she also served as the president’s intelligence briefer. She is a professor-of-practice at the Applied Research Lab for intelligence and security at the University of Maryland. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. CNN has more opinion on it.
Since news broke last week about the Chinese balloon that was floating over US airspace, new details have emerged about what’s now understood to be a global surveillance operation by China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army.
The Chinese seized an underwater vehicle in the South China Sea just 50 nautical miles from Subic Bay in the Philippines and hundreds of miles from China. The largest US naval base in Asia was taken over by the Navy in 1992 because of disagreement over costs, and may return to its former location following Manila’s decision to allow a greater US military presence in the Philippines. The incident was widely believed to have been a message to President-elect Donald Trump, just two weeks before his inauguration and several weeks after he angered Beijing by taking a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s president. Beijing agreed to return the craft three days later, but never apologized and accused the US of spying.
The most indelible example is from the presidency of George W. Bush. On April 1, 2001, two Chinese fighter jets harassed a US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane over international waters near China. One person collided with another person. The pilot of the plane was unable to regain control of his plane and made an unauthorized emergency landing in China. The 24 US crew members were held for 11 days, and some were repeatedly interrogated before US officials negotiated their release.
Had any damage or loss of life resulted when China downed the unmanned US craft, Chinese authorities would have quickly placed both blame and liability on the US. Protests would have erupted in front of the US Embassy and China’s Ambassador to the US swiftly withdrawn.
The Vice President and his staff told Congress that it was not known why the balloon was being flown across the US, which led to Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponing his trip to China. One of the sources said that the US believes senior leadership of the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese Communist Party including Xi were also unaware, and the US believes the Chinese are still trying to figure out how this happened.
Instead, let’s come up with a more strategic, measured plan to hold China accountable, but also allow room for needed dialogue. If we follow Beijing’s lead it will surely be a race to the bottom, making it harder to avoid what we all wish to avoid — military conflict with China.
Peter Bergen is a CNN national security analyst, vice president at New America and professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen wrote “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” His own views are expressed in this commentary. View more opinion on CNN.
And it reminded me that when my father, Tom Bergen, was a lieutenant in the US Air Force in the mid-1950s, he worked on a program to help send balloons into Soviet airspace.
In 1954 he was assigned to Headquarters Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. He worked on the project called “Grand Union”, which used balloons to move cameras over the Soviet Union. Those spy balloons were launched from Turkey.
My dad didn’t talk about this part of his career much, likely because the work was secret, but the program has long since been declassified since it happened around seven decades ago.
Comments on the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office: China is Overflowing with Surveillance Balloons
Other experts have pointed to the potential use of balloons in data collection that can aid China’s development of hypersonic weapons that transit through near space.
The United States and other nations have new gizmos called spy satellites that can take photos. They can do full-motion video! They can take thermal imagery that detects individuals moving around at night! The skies have a resolution of centimeters and they can spy on anything when it is clear.
Indeed, commercial satellite imagery is now getting so inexpensive that you can go out and buy your own close-up images of, say, a Russian battle group in Ukraine. Just ask Maxar Technologies, their business model was just acquired for $6 billion by a private equity firm.
It may help explain an element of a little-noticed report by the US Office of Director of National Intelligence last month.
Some questions have been raised about the Pentagon’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office: Could some of the balloons they identified be from China? And could some of the 171 “unexplained sightings” of UFOs that they also assessed be Chinese balloons?
China has done worse than that. US officials have accused it of benefiting from the work of hackers who stole design data about the F-35 fighter aircraft as China builds its own new generation of fighters – and of sucking up much of the personal information of more than 20 million Americans who were current or former members of the US government when they reportedly got inside the computers of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in 2015. China called the F-35 theft report “baseless” and denied responsibility for the OPM hacking.
China “has overflown these surveillance balloons over more than 40 countries across five continents,” the State Department official said, noting that “the Biden Administration is reaching out to countries directly about the scope of this program and answer any questions.”
Roughly half a dozen of those flights have been within US airspace – although not necessarily over US territory, according to one official familiar with the intelligence.
Some of the balloons that are seen around the world have different designs, that official and another source familiar with the intelligence said. These people said that there were multiple variations.
According to the Washington Post, the link to the broader program was uncovered before the latest balloon was spotted.
Senior FBI officials said Thursday that the FBI was evaluating pieces of the balloon that had been recovered and brought to the FBI lab in Virginia for analysis.
The investigators might look at what digital signatures it produced to see if there is a way to track this kind of balloon in the future. The commander of US Northern Command, Gen. Glen VanHerck, acknowledged to reporters on Monday that the US had a “domain awareness gap” that had allowed past balloons to cross into US airspace undetected.
China apologized Friday for what it said was the downed vessel being a weather balloon thrown off course.
Defense officials and other sources who have been briefed on the intelligence have said the Chinese explanation isn’t credible, and that the balloon path was intentional.
This elite team consists of agents, analysts, engineers and scientists, who are responsible for both creating technical surveillance measures and analyzing those of the US’ adversaries.
OTD personnel, for example, construct surveillance devices used by FBI and intelligence community personnel targeting national security threats — but they also are responsible for managing court-authorized data collection and work to defeat efforts by foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate the US.
A member of the House Intelligence Committee says that there are a number of reasons why they would not do that. We want to collect off it, you need to see what it is doing.
A defense official said the U.S. has procedures to prevent overhead surveillement that is used for satellite overflight.
Reply to Battle over the Atlantic” by “Jude’ Biden on the use of a High-Altitude Balloon over US Territory”
President Joe Biden suggested Wednesday that bilateral relations with China had not been affected by the balloon fallout, but China reacted angrily to the shootdown, refusing a call with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a high-stakes trip to Beijing on Friday. New sanctions in response to a balloon would most likely inflame tensions.
The idea of shooting down the balloon makes relations worse. Biden spoke with Judy on the day after his second State of the Union address.
Biden administration officials have stressed that the meeting was not canceled, but instead delayed until a later date. That date has not yet been set.
VP joe Biden laughed off a CNN question as to why China would commit an overt act. “They’re the Chinese government,” he said.
Biden administration officials have maintained they were able to move quickly to mitigate any intelligence collection capacity of the balloon and have countered that they will end up benefiting from the ability to collect information about the balloon and Chinese intelligence capabilities, both during its flight and in the recovery of its wreckage from the Atlantic Ocean.
The Chinese Communist party’s use of a high-altitude balloons over US territory as a brazen violation of US sovereignty will be condemned in the House on Thursday by Steve Scalise’s office.
Biden, according to senior administration officials, was not briefed until three days later, on January 31, when the balloon crossed out of Canada and into the continental United States. At that time, Biden ordered the military to come up with options to shoot the balloon.
The aftermath of the December 17th landing of a Russian superpower balloon on the Earth: U.S. Navy, NORAD and China
He said that he gave a signal to Xi last year when the US warned China not to give military support to Russia.
The pictures of the recovery effort were released Tuesday by the US Navy.
On Monday, the commander of US Northern Command and NORAD, Gen. Glen VanHerck told reporters that there was a balloon that was 200 feet tall and it carried a large object.
It is safe to picture yourself with a lot of debris falling out of the sky. That’s really what we’re kind of talking about,” VanHerck said on Monday. “So glass off of solar panels, potentially hazardous material, such as material that is required for a batteries to operate in such an environment as this and even the potential for explosives to detonate and destroy the balloon that could have been present.”
“[T]his gave us the opportunity to assess what they were actually doing, what kind of capabilities existed on the balloon, what kind of transmission capabilities existed, and I think you’ll see in the future that that time frame was well worth its value to collect over,” VanHerck said.
The balloon was ultimately shot down on Saturday afternoon by a single missile from a F-22 fighter jet out of Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. The operation was carried out by active duty, Reserve, National Guard, and civilian personnel, according to the Navy’s photo captions.
“The Chinese side has repeatedly informed the US side after verification that the airship is for civilian use and entered the US due to force majeure – it was completely an accident,” another statement from the Foreign Ministry said.
The Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, had been scheduled to visit Beijing within days of the balloon’s spot, but this has now been postponed.
China admitted on Monday that it owned the balloon and that it had deviated from its flight course in a mistake.
Mao said that China is a responsible country. “We have always strictly abided by international law. We have informed all relevant parties and appropriately handled the situation, which did not pose any threats to any countries.”
In China’s eyes, the newest superpower battlefield sits between 12 and 60 miles above the Earth’s surface in a thin-aired layer of the atmosphere it calls “near space.”
Lying above the flightpaths of most commercial and military jets and below satellites, near space is an in-between area for spaceflight to pass through – but it is also a domain where hypersonic weapons transit and ballistic missiles cross.
China sees new uses of a balloon near space for military reconnaissance: A case study of the Cloud Chaser incident in late 1997 and early 2017
It’s also clear that China is not alone in seeing new uses for a technology that’s been leveraged for military reconnaissance as far back as the late 18th century, when French forces employed a balloon corps.
“With the rapid development of modern technology, the space for information confrontation is no longer limited to land, sea, and the low altitude. Near space has become a battlefield in modern warfare, and is an important part of the national security system according to an article in the PLA Daily.
Unlike rotating satellites or traveling aircraft, stratospheric airships and high-altitude balloons “can hover over a fixed location for a long period of time” and are not easily detected by radar, wrote Shi Hong, the executive editor of Shipborne Weapons, a prominent military magazine published by a PLA-linked institute, in an article published in state media in 2022.
A military expert gives an explanation in a video segment of how the lighter-than-air vehicles can observe and take pictures and videos at a much lesser cost than satellites.
An example of what has been done in this domain is the reported flight of a liasion-sized dirigible-like airship called the Cloud Chaser. In a 2019 interview with the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, Wu Zhe, a professor at Beihang University, said the vehicle had transited across Asia, Africa and North America in an around-the-world flight at 20,000 meters (65, 616 feet) above the Earth.
Lighter-than-air vehicles have been boosted by the US. The US Department of Defense contracted an American firm to work on using their stratospheric balloons as a means to apply effects to the battlefield in order to develop a more complete operating picture.
The documentary did not provide further detail about the time and location of the incident, but a paper published last April by researchers in a PLA institute noted air-drift balloons were spotted over China in 1997 and 2017.
What the Navy and the Pentagon Known about the US Spy Balloon Decay Before the Decree: Two State-Officials Reveal Them
Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command, said that knowing the atmospheric conditions up there is essential to programming guidance software for missiles.
Both the self-governing island of Taiwan and Japan have acknowledged past, similar sightings, though it is not clear if they are related to the US incident.
CASI’s Mulvaney said that whether the balloon itself is characterized as “dual use” or “state-owned,” data collected would have gone back to China, which is now receiving another kind of information from the incident.
“At the end of the day responses and (tactics, techniques, and procedures) from the US and other countries on how they react, or fail to – all of that has value to China and the PLA.”
While fresh revelations have been made about what the US knew about Chinese spy balloons in the past, officials familiar with the original report conceded that there was not an urgent threat until it was over US territory.
The “tipper” sent by the DIA also goes out across government channels routinely, and although US officials have access to these reports, whether they read them or whether those reports are included in briefings to senior policymakers is a matter of discretion.
The US moved to look at the object and collect intelligence rather than treating it as a threat.
During a closed door briefing on Tuesday, Senate staff repeatedly pressed military officials about who knew what – and when. The top Republican on the Senate armed services committee sent a letter to top defense and intelligence officials asking about the decision making after the balloon crossed into Alaskan airspace.
Defense officials said that the NORAD sent fighter jets to make a positive identification after the balloon entered the US airspace near Alaska.
Once it was over US territory, officials have argued that the benefits of gathering additional intelligence on the balloon as it passed over far outweighed the risk of shooting it down over land.
Military officials agree that it’s not surprising that the president was not briefed until January 31, due to expectations for the balloon at the time.
Congress has taken a interest in the information about the administration’s decision-making process on the balloon.
Congressional Representative Mitch Romney insisted that NORAD had not given up on the problem of the U.S. and that it had done so without Xi Jinping
“There are still a lot of questions to be asked about Alaska,” a Senate Republican aide told CNN. “Alaska is still part of the United States – why is that okay to transit Alaska without telling anyone, but [the continental US] is different?”
One pilot took a selfie in the cockpit that shows both the pilot and the surveillance balloon itself, these officials said – an image that has already gained legendary status in both NORAD and the Pentagon.
The Chinese balloon was operating with a technology that could spy on US communications, according to the official.
Lawmakers were told Thursday that the order to send the balloon was dispatched without Chinese President Xi Jinping’s knowledge, sources familiar with the briefing said.
The officials, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. has only collected materials that were on the ocean’s surface so far, including the balloon canopy, some wiring and a “very small amount of electronics.”
Gen. Glenn VanHerck, the commander of NORAD and US Northern Command, said on Monday that there was no significant risk beyond what the Chinese already know.
The House briefing Thursday morning was tense, the sources said, with several Republicans railing against the administration, including GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who said that the Pentagon made the president – whom she noted she doesn’t like – look weak by their actions.
The safety of people was the top concern the Pentagon communicated in real time, according to the congressman.
“I believe that the administration, the president, our military and intelligence agencies, acted skillfully and with care. At the same time, their capabilities are extraordinarily impressive. Was everything done correctly? I can’t imagine that would be the case of almost anything we do. But I came away more confident,” Romney said Thursday.
The Defense Department’s response to the alleged spy balloon over Alaska and what they did about it: A statement from Jon Tester at the hearing
Jon Tester of Montana asked officials at the hearing how they could say that Chinese espionage wasn’t a military threat.
“You guys have to help me understand why this baby wasn’t taken out long before and because I am telling you that that this ain’t the last time. We’ve seen brief incursions, now that we’ve seen a long incursion what happens next? asks the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Jon Tester.
The Defense Department was not concerned about the balloon gathering intel over Alaska as it was not near sensitive sites, according to Pentagon officials.
The parts of the balloon recovered on the surface of the ocean have been delivered so far, while recovering additional pieces of the balloon that sunk has been complicated by bad weather, officials said.
It’s not yet clear where the balloon’s parts were manufactured, the officials said, including whether any of the pieces were made in America. The officials said that there wasn’t a determination as to the specific intent of the balloon because the analysts hadn’t looked at the majority of the equipment.
No explosives or offensive material has been identified that would pose a danger to the American public.
The parts that were found had English writing on them, though they weren’t high tech, according to one of the sources. The source didn’t give details on what parts of the balloon contained English writing.
“As we saw with the second balloon over Central and South America that they just acknowledged, they also have no explanation for why they violated the airspace of Central and South American countries,” the official said. The PRC will only be exposed further, making it more difficult for them to use the program.
As U.S. Navy crews continue to fish parts of the alleged Chinese spy balloon out of the Atlantic, a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, gave reporters an update on Thursday on some of what has been learned so far.
One of the FBI officials said that they were very early on in their assessment of what the intent was and how the device was operating.
The shoot down of a suspected high-altitude object hovering over Alaska and the aftermath of its confrontation with a black-matter spy balloon
The U.S. has waged information and public opinion warfare on China. “Who is the world’s number one country of snooping, eavesdropping, and snooping is visible to the international community.”
The government is investing in improvements too. In 2018, for example, China launched a project to research materials that can be used to make balloons that can float higher without losing buoyancy.
President Joe Biden told CNN that the shoot down a “high-altitude object” hovering over Alaska on Friday “was a success,” shortly after American national security officials disclosed that the commander-in-chief gave the US military approval to take the action.
The second incident happened just a few days after the shoot down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina.
The high-altitude object, Kirby said during a White House press briefing, was flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet and “posed a reasonable threat to the safety of civilian flight.”
There were two efforts to get closer to the object and evaluate it as it flew. The first engagement took place late on Thursday night and the second Friday morning. Kirby told reporters that both engagements yielded limited information.
Kirby said that the pilots’ assessment was that this was not manned and that they were able to get fighter planes up and around it before the order to shoot it down.
Biden, at the recommendation of the Pentagon, ordered the military “to down the object and they did,” Kirby added. Fighter aircraft were sent to bring down an object that came inside territorial airspace. It went down over frozen Arctic Ocean waters near the Canadian border and northeastern Alaska. The US is expecting to recover the debris.
US Northern Command coordinated the operation with the assistance from the Alaskan Air National Guard, Federal Aviation Administration, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The Deadhorse Object: A Massively Self-Maneuvering, Angularly Rotating, Isolated Object
“We’re calling this an object because that’s the best description we have right now. We don’t know who owns it – whether it’s state-owned or corporate-owned or privately-owned, we just don’t know,” Kirby said.
The US government was able to identify the object last evening. Biden was first briefed Thursday night “as soon as the Pentagon had enough information,” Kirby said.
The object “did not appear to be self-maneuvering, and therefore, (was) at the mercy of prevailing winds,” making it “much less predictable,” said Kirby.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction Friday in the area around Deadhorse, Alaska, as the military took action against the object.